Review: Darklings

By Sean Clancy 12 Dec 2013 0
Hubris? Fly too close to the sun? Motherf--ker I AM the sun. Hubris? Fly too close to the sun? Motherf--ker, I AM the sun.

Darklings is not interested in wasting your time. Don't let its relative simplicity, its self-billing as “endless survival,” or its cheeky “insert coin” greeting on the start menu fool you—this isn't a slight game. On the contrary, Darklings is an often unforgiving action romp which tasks you with saving the world from evil shadow beings who've stolen the light of the world. How, you ask? With magic. Real magic. And where does this magic live? In your finger. Finger magic. Say it with me. Finger magic...

But, honestly, it's so damn refreshing to see an action game that's clearly been designed with touch controls in mind, and that doesn't try to cobble together some approximation of the last decade of console gaming via twin-sticks. No, Darklings aims for its own feel, and dang does it feel good.

In short: you're Lum, an avenging light spirit. Enemies crawl towards you, you draw the symbols that appear over their heads, Lum teleports over and possesses them, derezzes them Neo-in-Agent-Smith style, and you collect the oh so precious star bits which the nasty buggers were holding in their shadow-jowls—unless they manage to touch you and, yeah, kill you dead.

Not quite a Heart of Darkness, this is more a  Curly Cute Double Loop-De-Loop... of Darkness. Not quite a Heart of Darkness, this is more a Curly Cute Double Loop-De-Loop... of Darkness.

That. Is. It. No moving around barring the jumps from foe to foe, no secondary attacks to manage, and, thank the heavens, no trying to scry out the edges of some invisible box you're “supposed” to be issuing your commands within. See that rectangular iSomething or other in your hands? See the empty space (this is air) around it? Stick yer pointer somewhere within the former.

As you might expect, Darklings begins straightforward and notches up the difficulty as you go. Early foes have nice, fat, swoopy symbols on their noggins which you'll banish with an authoritative sweep of the Royal Hand. Later enemies sport, well, if they're not exactly Chinese characters, at least some very good approximations of hanzi. Like, as drawn by someone who's played physical Mahjong more than a couple times.

It just feels great. Particularly so when you encounter a throng of shadows and manage to parse out the individual symbols in their number, zooming from foe to foe and extending your combo with each dexterity puzzle you crack. It helps that Darklings' light-on-dark, high-contrast aesthetic circa Windows 95 works to make this core mechanic all the more inviting to the player. Yes, the game's pretty, but any other title with this scheme could have been just pretty. Here, the artistic choices aren't merely for looks' sake, but to make the all-important runes atop enemies' heads quickly and easily recognizable. The look feeds into the play. Smart stuff.

"Five of Random Bonuses" just means you get a chance of scoring a power-up--shields and the like--during a match. It's not, like, Seven of Nine's lesser-known sister. "Five of Random Bonuses" just means you get a chance of scoring a power-up--shields and the like--during a match. It's not, like, Seven of Nine's lesser-known sister.

Less interesting is the game's timer, the main mechanic in Darklings which could, arguably, justify the aforementioned “survival” descriptor. As it happens, those stars you collect—and you do have to collect them, dragging them towards you in a risk-reward gambit that takes away from time spent blastin' shadows—aren't just for points, or even just for spending in Darklings' shop, though they serve that purpose as well. Rather, collecting stars will add time to the game clock. Let said clock run out, and little Lum, *sniff*, goes out... Well, he dies and then you can restart pretty much immediately. Presumably it takes energy for our Lum to burn so bright in a world full of shadow? I dunno. Sorry if that got weird. It's just, whew, the little lightbulb's so darn cute...

The timer mechanic's never really a big issue, and with minimal investment (stars earned in-game will suffice, given some time, though for-cash IAPs are here too) in Darkling's bog-standard assortment of star-generating and damage-increasing power-ups you'll only infrequently croak for lack of cosmic dust, if at all. Which might be the problem. Next to the elegant swirls and swipes of Darklings' combat, the rush to cram stars into Lum's ethereal gullet so as to please a timer feels clumsy and arbitrary, and certainly something cleverer could have been done.

Clever exactly like Darklings' boss fights, each of which takes the core mechanic working for Darklings—really, the only mechanic, if you can see where this review is going—and twists it just enough. The first boss, for example, tosses rocks at you semi-randomly, and you have to use your symbol-fu to detonate said missles 'fore they murder you. A flying-shadow creature, similarly, tries to drop rocks on poor Lum's likely squishy cranium, only here you have to time your swipes to hit the boss with an attack as it passes over one of several lightbeam crystals below. Smart stuff! Again. Bright, even, though damn if I wasn't holding that back for a closing paragraph zinger.

Oh yeah, right, this is how each stage ends. That is,with the trigger image for MKULTRA sleeper agents. Oh yeah, right, this is how each stage ends. That is, with the trigger image for MKULTRA sleeper agents.

And then it's... over? Hmm. So here's the thing about Darklings: it's simple. And that's good, and Darklings is a good game because of it, and it's easy to see how a game such as this could be ruined with too many half-baked bits thrown in, BUT for some it's just not going to be deep enough. And that's fair. It's a game just as enthralling as other, less scrupulous games, specifically those that would use the base elements of gambling and addiction where Darklings uses real challenge and mental stimulation. At the same time, it simply doesn't go far enough with its own sharp ideas.

Darklings is “endless” in the sense that you can keep going and shoot for a long, unbroken stretch of play time, but content-wise you won't encounter any drastic iterations on the core formula beyond the first few levels. Things plateau quickly, and stay that way. It's a game starved for content in the form of, say, even tougher symbols to draw or foes that come atcha' faster or from odd angles, but also in the form of more twists on the base symbol-slashing mechanic. Just a few, even. It's a hectic blast, for a while, but treat it as a survival challenge to binge on and you'll see most of what the game has to offer within an afternoon. For all its class, I almost wish Darklings could stand to be just a little less respectful of my time.

The game was played on a 3rd generation iPad for this review.

Review: Darklings

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